Saturday Editor’s Post: Spirited Away (2002)

by on December 10, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat Dec 17 at 10:40am, 9:50 and at various times daily thru Jan 11 at IFC Center [Program & Tix]


In “Castles in the Sky: The Masters of Studio Ghibli,” IFC presents a comprehensive retrospective of films from Japan’s premiere anime studio. All are new 35mm prints and many, including Spirited Away, will be presented in their original Japanese-language versions at shows after 6:00. The series continues through January 12.

Peter Rainer for New York:

The great Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki has made his masterpiece. Spirited Away, which was even more popular in Japan than Titanic, is the most deeply and mysteriously satisfying animated feature to come along in ages. At a time when animated movies, at least of the computer-generated Shrek and Toy Story variety, have never been funnier or friskier, Miyazaki offers up the traditional pleasures of hand-drawn animation combined with the emotional undertow of a resounding myth or Grimm’s fairy tale. It’s about a 10-year-old girl, Chihiro, who enters into a supernatural world with her parents and then must go it alone in order to rescue them in a dreamscape peopled by deities and spirits ranging from conniving crones to — yes — a giant white radish. The fantasy logic at times rivals Lewis Carroll’s in his Alice books (a clear influence on Miyazaki). The emotional logic resembles Carroll, too — like Alice, this young girl can really think on her feet.



Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian:

Miyazaki begins with a very real picture of family life: a mother and father in the front of their gleaming Audi saloon – daddy gloats over his vehicle’s four-wheel drive – are heading for a new home in the provinces. In the back, hunched and scowling, is little 10-year-old Chihiro, utterly miserable about leaving behind all her friends. An only child, whose hurt feelings are treated fairly brusquely by these well-to-do professional parents, Chihiro is scared by the feelings of loneliness that are creeping up on her. Forlornly, she clutches a dying bunch of flowers she has apparently been given as a farewell gift by her old friends, and is overwhelmed with grief and despair. “My first bouquet – and it’s spoiled,” she moans, discomfiting her parents with this precocious sense of her future, adult prerogatives.


Chihiro’s family gets lost in a strange, secluded woodland. They park the car, and walk through a tunnel carved in a red sandstone edifice to emerge in what the father airily announces must be a deserted theme park. Chihiro watches in horror as they then tuck in to a buffet mysteriously laid out for them and turn into a couple of fat, slobbering pigs; Chihiro finds herself a wanted human fugitive in a divine bathhouse-cum-recreation-zone: “a place where eight million gods come to rest their bones”. The crone priestess and proprietress of this psychedelic R’n’R area is Yubabu, whose employees must all sycophantically greet their god-customers: magnificent creatures of all shapes and sizes. She is obliged, according to her own rules, to tolerate Chihiro as long as she is prepared to do useful work. So she is made to scrub out a huge tub, preparing for the arrival of a noisome slime-monster, a Jabba the Hut lookalike. In all this, Chihiro is helped by her only friend, a slightly older boy called Haku; it is he who must teach her how to survive and restore her parents to human form.



Roger Ebert for the Sun-Times:

Japanese myths often use shape-shifting, in which bodies reveal themselves as facades concealing a deeper reality. It’s as if animation was invented for shape-shifting, and Miyazaki does wondrous things with the characters here. Most alarming for Chihiro, she finds that her parents have turned into pigs after gobbling up the free lunch. Okutaresama reveals its true nature after being freed of decades of sludge and discarded household items. Haku is much more than he seems. Indeed the entire bathhouse seems to be under spells affected the appearance and nature of its inhabitants.


Miyazaki’s drawing style, which descends from the classical Japanese graphic artists, is a pleasure to regard, with its subtle use of colors, clear lines, rich detail and its realistic depiction of fantastical elements. He suggests not just the appearances of his characters, but their natures. Apart from the stories and dialogue, “Spirited Away” is a pleasure to regard just for itself. This is one of the year’s best films.



Elvis Mitchell for the New York Times:

Mr. Miyazaki’s specialty is taking a primal wish of kids, transporting them to a fantasyland and then marooning them there. No one else conjures the phantasmagoric and shifting morality of dreams — that fascinating and frightening aspect of having something that seems to represent good become evil — in the way this master Japanese animator does.


For Chihiro each strange creature has the physical — and inevitably psychological — threat of a shark. Just because we know that they don’t have a mean bone in their bodies doesn’t make them seem any less dangerous to her. She doesn’t know whom or what to trust. The initially friendly Haku, a boy with magical powers (Jason Marsden), advises Chihiro on navigating the new world. He helps her get a job at a bathhouse both staffed and frequented by strange creatures, including a bubbling, mountainous pile of foul-smelling liquid called the Stink God. But Haku becomes brusque, and Chihiro is warned that he’s a sneak and cannot be trusted.



Scott Thill for Bright Lights Film Journal:

It’s more than a little strange to notice that Miyazaki’s latest foray into environmental and social collapse has made its lush and imaginative way to the United States by way of Walt Disney Studios, an uber-corporation sometimes inexplicably bent on rendering rich and colorful cultures into vanilla palettes (Pocahontas, Aladdin, Tarzan, and on). After all, this is the same famed animator who filled his memorable war between the natural and industrial worlds, Princess Mononoke, with generous amounts of violence. Indeed, it was hard to watch the unsettling gore resulting from the doomed battle march of giant pigs and wolves, clan rivalries, severed heads, and demonic possession without blinking twice at the fact that it was, above all, a blindingly gorgeous film in a medium mostly associated with kids. Princess Mononoke herself was a small girl, albeit a deadly demi-queen of the Great Forest. Which is another way of saying Princess Mononoke was to The Little Mermaid as The Shining was to Pinocchio.


But Disney is no dummy, which is why when you see ads for Spirited Away, you will also hear that it is the “highest-grossing film of all time” in Japan, or that it won a slew of awards in Germany, San Francisco, and Hong Kong before you hear anything else. No problem — money makes the world go round, right?



Scott Thill continues:

In this sense, it’s almost comforting to see Miyazaki’s name precede the film’s own title in its U.S. release, a nod to his exponentially growing cultural capital. Because the man is a legend for his sprawling spiritual imagination, which more than anything provides Spirited Away with its thematic engine. It is Miyazaki’s continual exploration of the tension between indispensable environments (domestic, natural, inorganic, fantastic, social, political, and onward) that gives all of his films the unsettling yet intimate feel of a familiar dream (or nightmare) unraveling before your eyes.

But while Princess Mononoke was an overt rumination on the conflict between steamrolling technological progress and natural — but not benevolent — ecosystems, Spirited Away keeps its social critique beneath the radar.



Ayumi Suzuki for Jump Cut:

Spirited Away stages a modernizing Japan in the Meiji period (1868-1912) when Western influences overpowered the nation politically and ideologically and one of the most significant influences from the West to Japan was the reorganization of Japanese society into a capitalist one. During the Edo period (1603-1867), the autocratic Samurai class controlled the whole nation and Japan closed its door to most other nations in order to preserve itself. In 1853, Commodore Perry from the United States urged Japan to start trading with other nations. In the following year, Japan opened its door to other nations and the Meiji era, which is considered as the period of restoration, began. In this Meiji restoration, the influx of the Western culture brought to Japan both chaos and growth, represented by the mixing of Japanese identity with Western architecture, philosophy, fashion, and values.


Miyazaki takes us back to Meiji Japan by sending the protagonist, who was born in contemporary times, to a modernizing Japan. The story goes as follows: Chihiro, an apathetic ten year-old girl, is moving from the city to a rural area with her family. While they are driving to their new home, they wander into a closed theme park, now called the Yuya. It’s actually is a leisure center built in the spiritual world by a greedy witch, Yubaba. This mystical town resembles Meiji Japan in terms of architecture, during which time the style was a mix of Western and Japanese. By the witch’s curse, Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs, and Chihiro must serve as a laborer at the Yuya in order to rescue them. At the Yuya, she encounters a mysterious boy named Haku, and with his help, the meek girl now learns to meet the challenges of the distressing spirit world. By having Chihiro live in the era of a modernizing Japan, Miyazaki invites the audience to experience what we really were losing as a nation and personally during that period.



Andrew O’Hehir for Salon:

This movie is so druglike that you’ll probably start suspecting at some point that you’re actually asleep, since what’s unfurling on-screen is more like the arbitrary symbolic language of dream than what usually happens on film. For me that moment arrived when young Chihiro (voiced by Daveigh Chase) is riding in the elevator to the top floor of the spirit bathhouse with Lin, an older girl who has become her protector. (Why do spirits need to take baths? To wash off all the gunk they accumulate in our world, naturally enough.) The elevator doors open and Lin blinks at the pale, massive shape in front of them. “Oh!” she says. “The Radish Spirit!”


– Compiled by Tom McCormack

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